Jodi Rosenbaum’s used book startup has hit an impressive milestone: $1 million in earned revenue. Not bad for an entrepreneur who got into the book business for a reason well beyond the bottom line.

“I was pretty pissed off,” said Rosenbaum. 

A former teacher, she thought too many efforts to get young people on the right track were based on the wrong approach.

“We’re always trying to fix what’s broken or missing or what’s wrong,” said Rosenbaum. “We’re talking about young people with immense amounts of potential and we never tap that as part of the solution.”

When a friend found a pile of discarded books sitting on a sidewalk, Rosenbaum was inspired to put her ideas to the test. She found a cramped office space in Cambridge and recruited a group of teenage boys to get her nonprofit off the ground.

“I heard a lot of pushback and questions about whether you could really take those most challenged and vulnerable young people and figure out how to run a business with them,” said Rosenbaum. “They didn’t love books and they didn’t love technology, but what they really loved was getting paid and they loved seeing they had control.”

Thirteen years later, More Than Words has retail locations in Waltham and Boston, an online business that includes partners like Amazon and an operation that processes 2.5 million donated books a year.   

Young people run the business. Many of them, like 21-year-old RJ are on the verge of aging out of the foster care system. He started as a trainee eight months ago and has worked his way up to team leader.

 “They seem to be thinking I’m a dependable person and I feel a lot better about myself because I never saw myself that way,” he said.  

RJ needs to meet both business and personal goals, everything from sales quotas to showing up for his community college classes. 

“As soon as I came to More Than Words I was able to make sure I get to class pretty much every day,” said RJ, “And bring my GPA up to like a B.”

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Founder Jodi Rosenbaum, second from right, with More Than Words employees.
Howard Powell/WGBH News
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More Than Words has locations in Boston and Waltham.
Howard Powell/WGBH News
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Jodi Rosenbaum started More Than Words with just a pile of discarded books.
Courtesy of More Than Words
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Youth employees are evaluated constantly.
Stephanie Leydon
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Rosenbaum says the teens didn’t like books, but they did like getting a paycheck .
Courtesy of More Than Words

Young people spend six months to a year working at More Than Words. At the end of two years, 75 percent of graduates are working or going to school at least 30 hours a week.

Nicole, a 21-year-old More Than Words alumna, works at Whole Foods Market. She’s a cashier, but says she’s prepared to take on a bigger role.

“Learning how to run shifts of seven people, making sure that we hit our monthly goal and our daily goal,” Nicole said. “I learned to how to not live off the government. I learned to work and be responsible and coming into work on time.”

Jodi Rosenbaum says the learning goes both ways. One important contribution young people made to the business early on was changing the name.

“It was a horrible name—Teen Leap—when I first started it,” recalled Rosenbaum. “As soon as young people came on board they were like 'that is lame, Jodi, we can’t call this Teen Leap.' And we came up with More Than Words”.

It’s a name, and a metaphor, that’s stuck.

“Our young people have so many labels and systems and names attached,” said Rosenbaum. “We always say to our young people: you’re more than words.”